The first time I attended a military funeral I was 17. My classmate’s older brother, 28-year-old Greg Riewer, was killed in 2007 in Habbaniyah, Iraq, near Fallujah, when an improvised explosive device detonated. The blast also injured three other Minnesota National Guard soldiers, and sent waves of grief through our small town of fewer than 1,500 people.
The funeral was held in our high school auditorium in Frazee, Minnesota, and it was standing room only. The gym was packed with friends, family, teachers, students, and local business owners to honor Greg’s life. The power of collective grief was palpable as everyone, young and old, grappled with the pain of a life lost too soon.
Coming from a small town in the Midwest where many feel called to serve in the military, I hear too often of brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers who have lost their lives serving in the United States Armed Forces. Even now, as U.S. military leaders decide the best way to operate amid the additional threats of the coronavirus pandemic, we often forget the sometimes invisible service of the men and women who dedicate their lives to protecting their fellow Americans. And yet the nation owes so much to that service – from the freedoms we have to the grief we share to the hope of a peaceful world. Our lives have all been shaped by that service and sacrifice, and Memorial Day is one day on which we can intentionally set aside our political differences and unite in honoring the men and women who give their lives to military service.
This year, we wanted to hear your stories of how someone who served in the armed forces changed your life. While Memorial Day is designated to honor military men and women who died while actively serving, we found that many readers also wanted to extend respect to family members who completed their service and died later – or to living veterans, who are also celebrated in November. Thank you for sharing your stories and photos with us, and thank you to all who have served, lost loved ones, and have wrestled with the complexity of war and peace.
Below is a collection of some of our readers’ responses. These stories might inspire you to spend a few moments today reflecting on the meaning of Memorial Day in your own life. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
“A woman ahead of her time.”
“My mother, Marilynn Bunting Jackson, was a woman ahead of her time. She was an Army nurse during WWII, and at first she didn’t think she was a veteran, because at the time veterans were men. My father, Kenneth Jackson, became a career Army officer after being drafted for WWII, and was a veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. My parents are both buried in the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. Whenever we can, we or someone we know who’s visiting the islands puts leis on their graves.” – Kathryn Geier, Ishpeming, Michigan
“Belief in the inherent goodness of the country”
“My grandmother lost her husband, Malcolm Pratt, in August 1942, and her only son, John Pratt, in January 1943. Malcolm, my grandfather, was awarded the Naval Cross for his service in WWI and the USS Pratt (DE-363) was christened in honor of him and my Uncle John. I remember their service and their dedicated belief in the inherent goodness of the country they sought to defend. My mother and father both served in the Marine Corps, my dad retiring as a colonel. They gave us the family inheritance of doing the right thing, even though history may reveal reasons that what they did is often complicated.” – Kate Parker, Elkins, West Virginia
“Where the courage and dedication came from”
“I was taught Memorial Day was a time to honor those who died in service, but also to honor those we love and who are no longer with us. It is a time to recognize those who have touched our lives in a positive way, who selflessly shared what they had with others: family, school teachers, Sunday school teachers, coaches, neighbors. The friends who loved their country and wanted to ensure that what the U.S. stood for would be understood and carried forward whether there was war or not. This is where the courage and dedication came from that made it possible for our troops to face D-Day, Anzio, Iwo Jima, Korea, Vietnam, and our more recent battles. A quiet moment to honor those who served in those ways and dedicated their lives to arming us all with a different kind of weapon would only deepen the significance of Memorial Day.” – Jack Porter, Minneapolis
“It is the children who suffer in the war.”
“When in Korea in 1952, my Air Force enlisted husband, Senior Master Sergeant Steve Bence Jr., was returning to his base when he stopped to help a child who was bleeding in a ditch. He took her to a nearby house and learned her parents had been killed. He left her with that family. He concluded his letter to me telling of this event with, ‘It is the children who suffer in the war. Hon, if we can’t have children when I return, maybe we can adopt one of these.’ He returned and we had two sons. Even though I did not tell them about the letter, each of them adopted two infants: three of the children were from Korea and one from Taiwan. My husband remained in the Air Force on active duty until his death, fulfilling 27 years of service. He valued the military as a deterrent force and taught our sons integrity and morality.” – Joan Bence, Jenison, Michigan
“A stunning, disturbing sight.”
“My husband, Ronald Wolff, was a U.S. Marine and served in Korea. He told me that when his troop ship arrived in Pusan Harbor, all the men were quickly off-loaded onto troop transport trucks and driven directly to the front lines. On the way, trucks identical to the one he was on passed them, headed back down from the front loaded with bodies stacked like cordwood. It was a stunning, disturbing sight. He survived, came home to me, and lived a happy, productive life into his 80s, but his graphic telling of the above story still haunts me.” – Virginia Wolff
“A medic in Normandy during WWII.”
“I was a child when my Uncle Bud served as a medic in Normandy during WWII. Before the war, my uncle and my dad did vaudeville in Hollywood at 20th Century Fox. I was told that because Bud was an excellent horseback rider, he was hired to work on John Wayne’s first film, The Big Trail, in 1930. He taught Wayne how to better ride his horse and directed the cowboy and Indian attacks. His experiences before the war were a great help in building the confidence needed to get him through that awful time.” – Diana Blanchard, St. Louis
“[We] dedicated our lives to working for peace”
“My dad, Ervin Edward Osgood, served in WWII in the Pacific and Europe and then in the Korean War. He received multiple awards for saving his comrades who were under fire or had been wounded, and was later one of the first men to receive the new rank of Sergeant Major. My mom, Winifred Osgood, was a WAVE, part of the United States Naval Reserve. After the war, my dad went back into the military, so my sister and I were raised in the south and around the world. Being raised in the military is what actually made my sister and me work for disarmament; we are both pacifists. We became peace and justice advocates and have dedicated our lives to working for peace on the front lines, and have been doing so for more than 40 years.” – Pamela Osgood, Grass Valley, California